Confused (and Happy)

A snapshot of how Italians feel today

Harvard Ash Center
Nov 4, 2019 · 7 min read

An individualistic and polarized society, seeking comfort in social ties. They are happy with their “Italianity”. At the same time, they are unsure of their capacity to change what they don’t like. Gaia van der Esch MPA 2020 toured Italy interviewing dozens of people: this is what she found….

Written by: Gaia van der Esch MPA 2020 and originally published on the Corriere della Sera

Looking at it from the outside, it seems easy. Once you leave the Italian borders, people can repeat — in one breath, and with unsettling certainty — all the (alleged) characteristics of Italian identity: lovers of the “dolce vita”; distracted about our economy; always creative, even in circumventing rules; incorrigible on politics. When you look at it closely, however, the issue becomes complicated. And it becomes fascinating.

As a country every day, Italy unconsciously composes a mosaic. With the hope of better understanding the faces that constitute this mosaic, I decided to travel — 2500 kilometers in my grandma’s FIAT 600, conducting 60 interviews in 14 regions of the country while administering a 46-question survey. My grandma Gianna, 97, was very envious about this trip! Each interview began with an introduction, mine: Gaia, currently studying at the Harvard Kennedy School with a Dutch surname, an Italian passport, and having lived abroad for 11 years because of my job and studies. And each interview ended with a photo (of the interviewee), accompanied by what appeared to be the most delicate topic to discuss, today, in my country: politics.

Yes, politics.

Before leaving for this trip, observing Italy through social media, I was certain to find a polarized, upset country. I was worried that perhaps people would even be unwilling to respond to my questions on such heated issues. Instead, every single person I asked to interview — in bars, beaches, parks, train stations, alpine refuges, restaurants, a regional council, mayors’ offices (Palermo and Milan), fishing boats (on the Delta del Po) — accepted with pleasure and curiosity (after realizing that, despite my folder with notes, I was not trying to sell them something). In fact, they welcomed me, provided me with suggestions for my trip, gave me unique insights for my research. They opened up about their fears and hopes.

A disillusioned society

This is, perhaps, the most profound contradiction that defines Italians today. They are disillusioned: at every step of my trip, without exception, people affirmed that today we are not doing well, worse than yesterday, let alone the day before yesterday. But to the question “what is your mood today?” the answer was always optimistic: good, almost excellent, on average 8.3 out of 10. Coupled with this (unproven) certainty that the country and the people are not doing well, I found a lot of fear: for the ever more evanescent human relationships, for a State that is not close to its citizens, for the socio-economic fragility. Despite this, respondents were proud of being Italian (average 8/10), with a strong connection to the regional dimension of Italian identity, from the North to the South of Italy. This pride is defined, though, by the past, by the history and culture we inherited from our ancestors: apart from the food and the beauty of our landscape, nobody referred to contemporary elements that define us as Italians. Italian perceive themselves as individualistic people, with a weak civic sense, destined to increasingly destroy the hyper-Italian values of family and solidarity. When asked to prioritize some set values, loyalty emerged as the most important, authority as the least important.

What divides us?

Italians all agree on one thing: it’s a divided country. By what? By a historical gap, North-South, and by an economic one: inequality, instability, fear for the future generations. What about the ideological and political divide that fill-up newspapers and talk shows? Secondary, at least according to the responses. And polarizing issues such as immigration? The most repeated premise during the interviews was “I’m not a racist, but …”, followed by statements on the need to stop migratory flows or the impossibility of “welcoming everyone”. But when I asked interviewees to clarify such statements, often they came to realize they were repeating slogans. Their conclusion was often that the fear of migrants reaching our shores is, in reality, a symptom: a way to protect ourselves from other uncertainties.

The hope for change

When we take a look at the situation outside of Italy, Italians seem to appreciate Europe and perceive the EU as a necessary part of their future. But they would like it to be more united and, above all, more equal: right now, they feel treated as marginal and irrelevant by those who govern the EU. Italians envy the civic sense of other European countries, their respect for the rules and efficiency (of their bureaucracy and of their employment sector). However, when I asked interviewees if, given the opportunity, they would leave Italy, most of them declined the offer for themselves but hoped their children or grandchildren would leave. “They are better off outside of Italy, just like you,” they repeated, “unless there are major changes in our country, they should leave to find a better future”.

Of course, the hope that politics will improve the situation is gone. Most respondents feel governed by ineffective leaders which, combined with the Italian mentality, constitute one of the greatest obstacles for change. Thus, with few certainties about the future and without a sense of belonging to a modern version of our identity, we cling to certainties (or illusions) of the past: the “Italian blood”, the sacredness of our territory. This is why, today, the right-wing appears to be more meaningful than the left-wing: “it’s more rooted, it brings us back to our traditions and to the times when we were doing better,” many say. But most interviewees recognize that political ideologies are outmoded concepts nowadays, with little meaning left for the right/left axis.

What can Italians do

What took the interviewees by surprise was my last question, which is the motto of my school — inspired by J.F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. So, what were they doing? At this point, the look in their eyes suddenly shifted. Some admitted not being engaged in civil society, most of them tried to avoid politics: too little time and interest, little hope and lots of disillusions. Others preferred replying that they were actively engaged in building a better country: “by paying taxes”, or “behaving correctly”. One thing was crystal clear in their eyes: each of them can and must do more for their country, overcoming the disillusion and passivity — there is no more time to find excuses!

This is what surprised me at the end of each day of my trip. I met, day after day, a country that wants to reflect on itself; a country that wants to show solidarity among Italians and towards other people, but that has an urgent need to find comfort and to reactivate social bonds in order to do so. Italy is the country of squares, cafes, churches, and chit-chats on benches in the parks. In these communal spaces, Italians have confronted and redefined themselves for hundreds of years. It is in these squares and on these benches that, at the end of each interview and after having renewed social ties, I witnessed a renewed desire in the people I met to change things, to get engaged. By losing these social ties, which constitute the fabric of the Italian territory, and by always taking more shortcuts, the cell phone instead of the bar, a social media post instead of an encounter, what do Italians really lose? Perhaps the most important thing of all: the “Italianity”, the ability and desire to (re)define themselves collectively and get back in the game, which is the only way they can create the future and the country they all want to live in.

Explore more of the photos and quotes from Gaia’s travels in a second post here.

About the author

With a bachelor’s in philosophy from La Sapienza and a master’s in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris, Gaia van der Esch (32 years old) spent the past 7 years working in international aid across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Following her work, Gaia was selected by Forbes as a 30 under 30 in Europe (2017). Today, she is a Public Administration master student at Harvard and is planning to return to her home country, Italy, in 2020.

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